Into the Abyss: How a Deadly Plane Crash Changed the Lives of a Pilot, a Politician, a Criminal and a Cop
Random House Canada (2012)
Reviewed by Rosemary Anderson
On the cover, we see the shadow of a small plane above the snow-covered trees of a mountainside. The similarity in title practically demands comparison with Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer’s best-selling first-person account of the Everest disaster. Into the Abyss promises a remarkable read, yet Carol Shaben is a relatively unknown author; this is her first book. Is she able to rise to the occasion?
The opening spotlight bores into the pilot’s conscience as he wrestles with the gravest decision of his young life. “Erik Vogel was in over his head and didn’t know how to get out.” Should he risk flying the tiny Wapiti Airlines plane in the worsening snowstorm, or risk getting fired? Shaben gives the reader permission to sympathize with Vogel in his terrible dilemma.
Then she takes the reader to the bottom of the remote mountainside in northern Alberta where the small commuter plane crashed in October 1984, carrying the author’s father, Canadian Federal Cabinet Minister Larry Shaben, and nine others. As the four survivors plumb the depths of their souls to make sense of the disaster and their survival, so we readers are compelled to consider the meaning of our own lives and the significance of our choices. The narrative cautions us against waiting for a disaster before taking stock, and challenges us to begin now to deal with the things that need changing.
Paul Archambault, the criminal on board, faces his moment of choice right there in the pit of the valley where the plane has broken apart. The least injured, he “got the hell out” of the aircraft as soon as it stopped. “A single word pulsed through Paul’s frightened brain: escape… If he left now, no one would miss him.”
Famed mythologist Joseph Campbell is quoted as saying, “It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life. Where you stumble, there lies your treasure.”
The abyss Shaben explores, with riveting narrative, is that of the human psyche, the place each reader is invited to explore within himself or herself. “Who were these men?” she asks. “What had they experienced on that snowy, fog-drenched night as they struggled together to cheat death? How had it changed them? If I faced a similar near-death experience, would it change me?”
Shaben was working in the Near East when the plane crash occurred. It was a long time before she could bring herself to write about it. When she arrived at Vogel’s home for their first interview, he greeted her with, “I’ve been waiting years for you.”
One is apt to forgive the author for occasionally shifting, without apparent cause, between calling her father “Larry” and calling him “Dad” or “my father.” These are picayune distractions in an epic story that is brilliantly paced to match the self-reflective journey of each character. The quest for meaning amidst life-and-death drama, combined with nearly flawless writing and exceptional detail born of a decade of intense research, makes this a must-read book.